Psychedelic Balkan Bops

 #ethno #tribal #drumandbass #bulgarian #sofia #kottarashky #balkan #folklorebeats #folklore #Sofia #easterneurope

Need some diversity for your quarantine playlist?  


After listening to Arctic Monkeys and Stromae on a loop for the first few weeks of quarantine, I craved some diversity in my playlist. I found solace in some hometown music – that being Sofia, Bulgaria – so I decided to share my new obsessions with you, dear reader. 

Despite many lockdown setbacks, I’m (surprisingly) happy to be able to spend time at home. So now, I’m weirdly finding myself reminiscing about my roots, by diving into gipsy beats and ‘Balkan psychedelics’. 

Let me first introduce you to my all-time favourite musician of this genre, Kottarashky



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Quick facts about Kottarashky

Originally called Nikola Gruev, Kottarashky is famous for electronic jazz and beats, with a large splash of Balkan textures incorporated alongside. His music was used in the animated short film ‘Blind Vaysha’, nominated for an Oscar in 2017. In an interview for Nova TV, Kottarashky explains that the film’s nomination was an incredible moment in his life, and made him feel proud to be Bulgarian. Retrograde patriotism was never his goal, but rather to assimilate the traditional into the contemporary. He was also a finalist in the shortlist for the UK’s Songlines Remix competition. The goal was to create a remix of David Attenborough’s track ‘Gender Wayang’ from his acclaimed My Field Recordings from Across the Planet from 50 years ago. You can find his incredible remix here


‘I Want You to Sleep’ – Kottarashky 

This is my go-to song for when I’m feeling down. It has the signature Kottarashky twist – the kaval (an end-blown flute-ish instrument) – which gives the song a slightly oriental feel. In all of his tracks, Kottarashky (or Nikola), uses his own recordings of tunes, songs and various sounds he finds on his journeys through the Bulgarian countryside. This includes a bunch of babushkas gathered together beside their house, knitting, gossiping, and singing songs passed down from their mothers, as well as a group of gipsy street musicians that walked in on Nikola and his friends whilst in a pub in the mountains. He didn’t miss the opportunity to record them and create ‘Opa Hey!’. 


‘Demoni’ [Demons] – Kottarashky & the Rain Dogs

This track is eponymous to the album’s title. It blends jazz, drum and bass, and a brisk French accordion, which transitions to typical countryside ‘tune play’. It brings nostalgia for the slower, typical Bulgaria. The chanting voice of the grandpa, recorded by Nikola somewhere in the undisclosed countryside, reminds me of my grandpa, and the folklore lullabies he used to sing me to sleep with. The monotone repetition of the tune, without much modulation, is a typical lullaby structure in Bulgaria. 


‘Gyuro’ – Kottarashky & the Rain Dogs


This single came out just under a month ago. It serves as a precursor for Kottarashky’s upcoming new album. Here, he incorporates a lamenting, folklore song. A female voice, TUi MAMAKi, with her airy vocals and hypnotic, dissonant grooves, tells the story of Gyuro. In a countryside folklore style, TUi sings about Gyuro taking care of his baby falcon as he cries. So relatable, right? This song’s bluesy saxophone riffs and traditional music vocabulary set a melancholic mood. ‘Gyuro’ is perfect for a rainy day, setting the imagination to roam free around the spiritual forests of the Balkan Mountain Range. Our folklore is filled with tales of forest nymphs (samodivas) that were once beautiful girls, that died unmarried. 



‘Rayno’ – Gipsydelica

This tune is from a less-known ethno rock band called Gipsydelica. ‘Rayno’ comes from their EP Babylon, also remixing Balkan folklore, but focuses on the gipsy twists as hinted by their band name. These guys remain loyal to the original songs if you’re searching for more similarity to the original tales. I love them for the noticeably gipsy- Balkan inflexions and the incorporation of the most common folklore dance that all Bulgarians know – ruchenitza. This looks like an Irish jig but is performed in a ⅞ time signature. (Check Borislav Petrov’s article on Bulgarian asymmetric metres for more). 




‘Fuga’ – Kottarashky & the Rain Dogs

This song is from the collaborative album of Kottarashky & The Rain Dogs called Cats, Dogs and Ghosts. This fusion of drum and bass with folklore uses rhythm as a substructure, traditionally associated with the dance ‘nadigravane’, (literally translated as ‘outplaying’). It’s like a dance battle, which is performed on public squares in towns, usually to impress girls. Sometimes it will be performed between a girl and a boy and considered as flirting. Whoever lasts longer dancing, wins. Kottarashky fuses a folklore dance that requires two people, with the western genre fugue – a multi-voice compositional technique found in the second half of the song. This weaves a sound battle between Western and Eastern musical legacies and creates a beautiful sonic, and political experience. This inspires the name of track – ‘Fuga’, translated from Bulgarian ‘Fugue’. Overall, I find this an incredibly fun track that I would definitely play at a party. 



‘Doctore’ [Hey, Doctor] – Kottarashky & the Rain Dogs

This chilled trumpet jazz, with gentle old school rap beats, takes me on a midnight stroll through Sofia. The main tune, repeated on an electric guitar and a synthesizer, is a typical sound that one could hear, emanating alongside clouds of smoke from hipster live-music bars in the heart of Sofia. It reminds me of when my high-school boyfriend and I would visit those bars and listen to live gigs, nursing a beer.

‘Doctore’ is from Kottarashky’s album Demons, created for another collaboration with the director of ‘Blind Vaysha’, Theodore Ushev. In the interview for Nova TV, Kottarashky explains that “this album is the very moment in which he pinpointed his sound like the ‘Balkan beat’, Goran Bregovic-style music that became viral in Western Europe. (…) I made personal and intimate music that isn’t just party music.’ [translated from Bulgarian].


‘Chetiri’ [Four] – Kottarashky 

Finally, ‘Chetiri’. This song is again from the album Opa Hey!. ‘Chetiri’ features a more dynamic sound, blending salsa and tribal beats with the ever-present Bulgarian folklore. If you are a fan of flat notes, then this is your track. Bulgarian fans still have debates about what exactly he is saying in these lyrics. His music video is composed of candid footage of 2007 Sofia. Underlined is a slight political criticism of the way Bulgarians live, but also serves to show the good stuff too. This song awakens a passion for dance, making the listener want to stomp around my room. (Maybe this is based on personal experience, who knows…) It feels like a remix of old ritual music used to summon spirits, but with a modern, upbeat lilt. 



I hope you were inspired by this continental compilation. Let’s stay creative and use the quarantine to explore more of ourselves and the world, for which we usually don’t have time. But to be honest, laying in bed with Netflix, doesn’t sound bad either.

Stay safe, and don’t feel guilty for binging! 


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